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STEM Majors: Take This Course and Find Out if Teaching Could be in Your Future

Students preparing for teaching in ESTM 201.

November 12, 2018

This piece is part of the new DrexelNow series showcasing "A Day in the Class" for some of Drexel University's most interesting and impactful courses.

Marlene Hilkowitz is preparing her Drexel University STEM students for their first time leading lessons in two Philadelphia School District primary schools local to the University City Campus.

In essence, she is teaching them how to teach.

Hilkowitz, a clinical instructor with Drexel’s School of Education and its DragonsTeach program, is running through a variety of scenarios with the students — from the past, present and future. What surprised them positively or negatively about the classes when they went to observe? What attention signals did their mentor teachers use that they could also employ? How can they identify students who are struggling? What should they do if they can’t remember names, run out of time or say something wrong?

No observation, question or concern is too small in preparing these Drexel students for a successful first day of teaching.

Students participating during ESTM 201.The course, titled “ESTM 201: Stem Teacher Education Preparation,” also known as “Step 1,” is the first course in the DragonsTeach program, which was developed as part of a collaborative initiative between the School of Education and the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Engineering. Students in Step 1 are not School of Education students, but rather those in this section range from a first-year in computer science to a second-year in biology/premed to a fifth year in chemistry. That’s because DragonsTeach was designed to offer STEM students the opportunity to build the skills to teach without changing their major – and ultimately to become certified.

“With Step 1, students who are getting their degree in a STEM field have the opportunity to explore teaching, not necessarily as a replacement, but as a supplementary or complimentary area of expertise,” Hilkowitz said. “We view the STEM content expertise and identity as an asset that students can draw upon as they make their way through the DragonsTeach program and in their work in Philadelphia classrooms.”

Hilkowitz said Step 1 gets students quickly immersed in teaching so that they can learn how to “hold their own” in a classroom early on. In just week five of the fall term, these students will already start working with the fourth and fifth graders on a project that explores how the arm works, and showcases how engineering can be used to learn about science.

And for students who put in the work, exponential growth is possible, and may be surprising.

“They don’t think they’re going to get better in the matter of a couple weeks, but they do get much better from the first time [teaching] to the second time,” Hilkowitz said.

So who should take ESTM 201, or consider getting involved in the DragonsTeach program? Any science, technology, engineering or mathematics student — from first through fifth year — can think of this course as a way to try out teaching just to see what it’s like.

“Getting into the classroom early is important, both for the student and for our schools,” Hilkowitz said. “One of the big challenges in education today is teachers discovering in their first year of teaching that it’s not for them.”

For Edwin Guillermo, a fifth-year chemistry student, teaching has become a new focus after three co-ops in mechanical engineering showed him that was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“I was working in an oil refinery and thought, ‘What is the fruit of this?’” he said. “I lost fulfilment, and knew that’s not something that is going to satisfy me in life. Through teaching, I get to mold the minds of young people and benefit society.”

Students and instructors during ESTM 201.ESTM 201 is allowing him to get his “feet wet” and is giving him a very good idea of what the classroom is like through first-hand experience before graduation, Guillermo said. For students like Emily Koskey, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student who became involved with the DragonsTeach program in her second year, pursuing a teaching certificate upon graduation is the goal, and only made possible through DragonsTeach.

“I realized teaching is something that I really like doing, so I continued with the program,” Koskey said. “I already did my student teaching in the spring of 2018, which made it concrete that I really want to teach when I graduate. … But some people I know don’t even want to be teachers, but they want to finish the program just because it’s such a great community, and it’s good leadership skills and good resume building. So, the program is good even if your goal isn’t to teach.”

Koskey acts as a peer mentor in this section of ESTM 201 — helping Hilkowitz prepare for class and adding anecdotes to back up her points, as well as guiding students through mandatory practice teaching sessions before their classroom visits. DragonsTeach peer mentoring is a paid work study position, and Drexel is the only UTeach Institute school — which guides the DragonsTeach program — supporting such positions.

“The professors like Marlene have been teaching for so long that sometimes it’s hard to scale it back and really give real-life advice,” Koskey said. “With us, the peer mentors, we’ve just done it. … Before peer mentors existed, the practice teaches were not required and less formal. You just did it at home. You would practice with your roommate. When I took Step 1, I just read through the lesson plan and did it the day of. It still worked, but obviously it could have been so much better if I had fine-tuned it through practicing.”

Trang Hoang, a first-year computer science major, said that learning from mentors like Koskey and Hilkowitz is one of the most beneficial aspects of the course. Hoang became interested in education through volunteer teaching in high school back home in Vietnam, but said any STEM major could benefit from the course even if they don’t share the same background or piqued interest.

“I think it’s a lot of learning for yourself as well,” Hoang said. “Finding a better way to teach other people is helping yourself to learn.”

Koskey shared this sentiment.

“Step 1 kind of opens your eyes to good teaching methods which can open your eyes to see if your professors here are teaching you in the way that you learn best,” she said. “You kind of learn all that stuff through the DragonsTeach courses and even if you only take Step 1, you’ll learn those basics and you’ll learn how teachers should be teaching you, and you can learn what to do in a class that’s not working or why you did well in this one class even though you didn’t like it, because they taught it well.”

Marlene Hilkowitz teaching ESTM 201Hilkowitz said some STEM majors find DragonsTeach as a kind of “relief” course that allows them to think differently, and some students agreed. Koskey also said that she found it easy to fit into her course load because a lot of DragonsTeach requirements overlap with her major.

It's also where she found her “home” at Drexel, so she would encourage other students like her to give it a try.

“In my normal classes I see the same people because we’re all the same major. Here, I meet people that are environmental, bio, math majors, physics majors — everything you can think of,” she said. “It’s great to get a different opinion on things because maybe they’ve experienced Drexel differently than I have. So it’s really great to just work with people who have had different experiences than you.”

Find out more about DragonsTeach here. Questions, visit the program’s FAQ page or contact dragonsteach@drexel.edu.